Chicagoans Inch Their Way Back To Public Transit And Air Travel

Coronavirus CTA
As stay-at-home restrictions lift across the state, transit agencies are registering slight upticks. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Coronavirus CTA
As stay-at-home restrictions lift across the state, transit agencies are registering slight upticks. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Chicagoans Inch Their Way Back To Public Transit And Air Travel

Travel by planes, trains and taxis remain at dismal levels compared to pre-pandemic trends. But, as stay-at-home restrictions lift across the state, transit agencies are registering slight upticks, and more flyers are passing through O’Hare and Midway airports.

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA)

Trains: CTA reports that rail ridership has improved from a 90% decline during the stay-at-home order to an 85% percent drop, compared to normal use. That means CTA trains are serving only 113,000 people per day, compared to an average 760,000 daily commuters based on 2016 numbers.

Buses: CTA bus ridership has held steady at 70% down compared to the same period last year, taking a smaller hit than other modes of transportation. The lifting of the stay-at-home order hasn’t budged the percentage much, according to a CTA spokesperson.

This trend is not surprising, said transportation expert P.S. Sriraj. He points out that Chicagoaons who likely commuted for work during the pandemic tend to rely on this mode of public transportation. “Trends have always shown us that buses cater to lower-income people,” said Sriraj, who is director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“That also means that they typically tend to be either in the service sector, or essential workers as they are labeled now, who do depend on public transportation. Buses are also more ubiquitous. Rail doesn’t go to all the neighborhoods and all the communities.”

Metra

At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, weekday ridership dropped to the mid-6,000s, or about 3% of normal ridership, according to Metra spokesperson Katie Dahlstrom. Recently, as many as 14,000 passengers took trips daily, still a mere 5% of normal use.

O’Hare and Midway airports

At least 40% more people are passing through Chicago’s two major airports now, according to numbers analyzed by WBEZ.

In the two weeks before the stay-at-home order started, security checkpoints at O’Hare and Midway airports collectively processed about 67,000 passengers per day; by March 28, a week after the stay-at-home order, that number dropped 88% to around 8,200 people.

As of May 23, the most recent day with numbers publicly available, check-ins at both airports combined have picked back up slightly, to 11,500. But that’s still around an 82 percent decline compared to the beginning of March.

TSA spokesperson Mark Howell said this gradual increase is also happening at airports across the country.

Will the use of public transit take a permanent hit?

This is a possibility and certainly a fear, UIC’s Sriraj said. “As people realize the benefits, and get used to a different way of conducting business — of teleworking, shopping online — there is a fear that they may not really be traveling as much for some of the essential steps that they used to take.”

Sriraj said agencies such as the CTA and Metra (as well as the Regional Transit Authority, which oversees both) could seize the moment as an opportunity to reimagine rail service in a post-pandemic world. He said, for instance, now would be a good time to pilot micro-transit or on-demand programs, as other cities are currently doing.

Experts are also concerned about the long-term viability of public transit, seen by many as an important way to deliver equitable services across Chicago communities.

“The first round of federal stimulus funding was pretty favorable to transit,” said Chicago transportation expert Joe Schwieterman. “But we just don’t know how long this downturn is going to last. And our system is quite dependent on farebox revenue.”

The Regional Transit Authority requires agencies to make half of their operating budget from ticket fares, while the other half comes from sales taxes — both sources of revenue that have been hit hard by the shutdown.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed to provide economic assistance during the pandemic, will cover transit agencies’ operating budgets through the rest of this year, Sriraj said. But financial consequences of the pandemic could last beyond federal stimulus as commuters move away from the city center and change their transportation habits.

For now, he said, Chicagoans should support the region’s public transit system by continuing to ride — with a mask and hand-sanitizer, of course.

Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.